Following the abolition of slavery in 1864, many homeless Gypsies settled on the outskirts of southern Rumanian towns. These quarters on the border between the town and the country were referred to as "mahalas" and it was here that the "cantece de mahala"* - the songs of the suburbs originated. When people met in the "carciuma" or garden cafés, a group of musicians known as a taraf, comprising a violin, double bass, tambal, cobza, accordion and vocals would entertain them. The repertoire of this Gypsy music known as Lautari comprised pieces from a rustic environment, interpreted with great virtuosity and urbane arrangements for a very mixed audience in the town.
The grande dame of the "cantece de mahala", Romica Puceanu, was born in Bucharest in 1926 and at the tender age of 14 had already begun to sing in local cafés in the Floreasca and Herestrau quarters on the outskirts of Bucharest. "Romica Puceanu had an inexhaustible repertoire of these songs", the accordion player and singer Victor Gore recalls in the summer of 2005. The singer recorded her first album in 1964 with the Taraful Fratii Gore - Aurel and Victor Gore's band in Electrecord's Tomis Studio. And it was the Gore Brothers who discovered the the young lady with the powerful voice in their own family and helped her on. They arranged gigs for their cousin at weddings in the quarter where the Gore and Puceanu families lived. There Romica Puceanu sang melodies with stirring words, in which she described the everyday life, longings and sufferings of the simple folk. Above all however she was a soulful performer of the songs from the poor suburbs, which merged Turkish "cifte-telli" rhythms with Romanian melodies and lyrics. In a short time she had risen to be the most popular and best paid singer and became the incarnation of Romanian Lautari music.
Romica Puceanu's career undoubtedly began with the help of the Gore Brothers - whose name had been legendary in Bucharest since the thirties. At that time Aurel and Victor Gore's father, Gore Ionescu, played his violin in exclusive Bucharest restaurants and his traditional style was so well known, that until his death in the middle of the nineteen-fifties, he was regularly asked to come and make recordings in the Bucharest Folklore Archive. Victor Gore, who was born in 1931, learned to play the accordion, and his brother Aurel, who was three years older, learned to play the violin. When their father died they took his first name as their stage name. Nobody who wanted to celebrate an old-style wedding got past the Gore "Firm" until Aurel Gore's death shortly before the revolution in December 1989. Apart from being a virtuoso accordion player, Victor Gore was also well-known as a singer. "We were born for the music, my father always played real "Lautari music", he was an extraordinary person, who performed with the masters in restaurants such as the 'Pescarus' or in the 'Constantin Tanase' revue theatre", Victor Gore recalls. The Taraful Fratii Gore have sold thousands of records in Romania up to the present day, but the brothers never achieved great wealth. Victor Gore lives today in a small two-room apartment in the Berceni district of Bucharest and relives his memories of the golden years of the old Lautari generation, as the fan letters piled up at Electrecord pleading for the next Gore record. "We played our music throughout the land, we were even invited to play in Sofia. But the best weddings were those of the flower-selling Gypsies in Bucharest.", relates Victor Gore. "We always had a good timbalist with us, usually Marin Marangros, and of course a cobza*, played by Maslina Vetoi, a musician who had also performed with my father. When we played slow, sad songs the gypsies wept, nobody could eat a thing!"
The Gore Brothers accompanied many different performers over the years with their band, but their favourite singer was Puceanu, because she sang one hundred per cent Lautari music and enjoyed improvising. Puceanu was a lively, funny woman, who never turned up at the studio without her teapot - filled with cognac. When one of the sound engineers noticed during a studio take that she was holding her words the wrong way up and mentioned this to her, Romica replied: "Would I ever have sung with these men (the Gore Brothers) if I could read?".
Yet the arrival of modern music in the long isolated Balkan state has seen to it that only a few young Romanians know such Puceanu classics as "Doi tovarasi am la drum" or "Balanus". Romica Puceanu sang both of these songs on her debut record in 1964, using but few of the usual clichés of the ever-revelling Gypsy musician. The recordings with the Gore Brothers still represent the traditional "raw" withdrawn sound of the old taraf. The arrangements are clear and minimalist, creating space befitting Puceanu's sparkling voice. Romica Puceanu meant to many Gypsies as much as the legendary chanson singer Maria Tanase meant to the Romanians. And it wasn't only Bucharest intellectuals who saw in Romica Puceanu the "Billy Holliday of the East".
But the Romanian music scene in the nineties was dominated by Balkan pop and there was hardly any room for the old generation of the Lautari. The Gore Brother's Band disintegrated after the death of Aurel Gore, and the incomparable Romica Puceanu died following a serious car accident in 1996 on her way home from a wedding performance.
The cobza is a lute with a short, backward-curving fingerboard, upon which the four strings are attached in reverse order and usually played with a quill. Up until the 1970s this instrument was firmly anchored in the musical life of Wallachia, today hardly anyone learns this instrument.
These songs and ballads originated under the influence of Turkish Ottoman music and were performed as early as the 16th century in the courts of Wallachian princes.